Women beware women

Our ongoing national catfight has revealed an unpleasant truth obscured by the smarmy rhetoric of "sisterhood": Women have always betrayed each other.

By Katie Roiphe
Published April 1, 1998 5:41PM (EST)

"Hi I missed you!!!!" e-mailed Monica Lewinsky to Linda Tripp. Apparently, she missed her older friend, the one she poured out her secrets to, cried hysterically in front of and shared the drama of her life with, enough for four exclamation points after several days' separation. That was before Tripp wired herself like a narcotics informant and lured the childish, effusive Lewinsky into incriminating herself on tape.

Tripp emerges as the bête noire of female friendship, the friend who seduces you into hours of intimacy and then turns against you. "I see myself as a victim," Tripp asserted astonishingly to a Newsweek reporter, at the same time complaining that she didn't get to choose the photograph that would go with the article. Tripp represents female behavior at its worst, a soap opera vision of how women treat each other. "I am disturbed by the smear campaign that maligns Monica," said the sensitive Tripp of the smear campaign she herself set into motion. "I firmly believe the truth will be her friend."

And what about Julie Steele, with her lovely smile and blond curls? She says Willey asked her to lie and say that Willey had come to her house and complained about President Clinton groping her on the day of the alleged incident. Steele's known Willey for 20 years. We can imagine the glasses of white wine, the Caesar salads shared at lunch, the secrets exchanged over the phone -- but she wouldn't even tell one tiny lie to cover for her friend. Nor did Willey think twice about dragging her close friend into the lurid mess of deception and possible perjury. Steele claims to have been acting out of regard for that shining abstraction The Truth, but she also sold a photograph of her friend and President Clinton to the National Enquirer for $7,000. Maybe Steele spent many dark hours of the soul wrestling with the decision to come forward and expose her friend, but one can't help detecting a certain pattern in the events of recent months: women betraying other women. No wonder the country is riveted. This is a catfight extraordinaire.

These days when I read the paper I find myself remembering the times when the women I know have betrayed each other for men, for love, for lust or for temporary comfort. In this case, they are betraying each other for money, for their newly made-over photograph on the cover of a tabloid, for 15 minutes of a particularly dodgy and sordid version of fame.

The lack of female loyalty in evidence in our headlines extends to families as well as friends. Before Paula Jones' case against the president was dismissed, one of her own sisters came forward and called her a liar and implied that she was a slut. And then of course there is the question that has been tantalizing news pundits: If Kenneth Starr still wants to drag Lewinsky over the coals, will her own mother testify against her? The way things are going, we have to assume, why not? We are witnessing a breakdown in the concept of female solidarity. The message seems to be: Stand by your man, but don't stand by your female friends and relatives.

There is also the abstract question of loyalty to the wife. Take the example of the airline flight attendant, Christy Zercher, who complained that Clinton stroked her breasts for 40 minutes while Hillary slept two seats over. One wonders why Cristy didn't move, or get up to refill the water cooler, or do whatever flight attendants do on campaign planes, during the alleged incident. She claims to have been "shocked" and "humiliated," to have been wholly and completely on the wronged first lady's side of this disgusting matter, but apparently not enough on her side that she felt called upon to shift the president's hand off her breast during his marathon caress.

The whole idea that women should respect the wife, that Monica Lewinsky should have had a shred of remorse about Hillary Clinton, does not even seem, in all of the obsessive talk about this situation, to be an issue. It may be that the idea of the wife rarely means anything to the other woman, that abstract questions of sisterhood nearly always vanish in the heat of an attraction. But what is interesting is that the idea that it should mean something, that Lewinsky should have paused for one second and thought about Hillary, does not seem to be an expectation of the American public.

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The theme of women betraying other women plays itself out on the political level as well as the personal. In an astonishing tour de force of hypocrisy, Gloria Steinem argued on the op-ed page of the New York Times that even if Willey were telling the absolute truth and the president fondled her breast and pressed her hand on his erect penis against her will while she was asking for a job, he was simply "taking no for an answer." According to Steinem, Clinton's behavior in that narrow corridor was that of a perfect gentleman.
This change of heart on Steinem's part, this complete retreat from her own shrill rhetoric of female victimization, tells us something about the mood in the country. Another prominent feminist, Susan Faludi, who rode to "Backlash" fame on Anita Hill's Ann Taylor jacket tails, wrote a diatribe against Lewinsky, Jones and Gennifer Flowers in the New York Observer titled "Let's Separate the Women from the Girls." Even the die-hard Ms. magazine feminists, the "a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle" feminists, the feminists who have made their entire living off of the concept of sisterhood, are not supporting the female players in Washington's unfolding drama.

This abandonment on the part of many feminists of their former selves, of everything they've said and done over the past 10 years, mirrors an undeniable trend in the country at large: Women are not supporting any of the women who have come forward to say that they have been involved with, molested, fondled, propositioned or assaulted by Clinton. The polls have consistently showed a lack of female sympathy and identification.

This represents a marked change from the sexual harassment craze of the early '90s. Remember the "I believe Anita Hill" buttons? Remember when it seemed like the whole nation was in the grip of a fanatical, almost sinister sisterhood? The unspoken ending of "I believe Anita Hill" was "because she is a woman." To a large portion of the female population, Hill seemed to represent All Women. But try to imagine schoolchildren wearing "I believe Paula Jones" or "I believe Monica Lewinsky" or "I believe Gennifer Flowers" buttons pinned to their knapsacks. You can't. And it's not because we don't believe them, it's because we don't want to be associated with them. We don't, in the end, want to take their side.

The truth is that women have always betrayed each other for men, for other women, for the more popular girl in the playground or simply for the hell of it. Perhaps it was our expectation that they wouldn't that was irrational. Perhaps it was the shimmering sisterhood of the early '90s -- when women united against Clarence Thomas and the entire male population of sexual predators -- that was illusory. Perhaps the war between the sexes was an artificial war, with artificial sides. Women stood by Hill because it was fashionable, because it was what they were told to do by the front page of the New York Times and by their friends -- and they don't stand by Willey, and they didn't stand by Jones, for much the same reason. There is no instinctive sympathy, no instinctive bond. Even at the height of feminist togetherness in this country, there was always an undercurrent of exclusion, a subtext of if you don't toe the party line you can't belong to our sisterhood.

But this is nothing new. Shakespeare wrote eloquently on the drama of female closeness and betrayal: The whole plot of "Othello" rests on Desdemona's lady in waiting stealing her handkerchief to spark Othello's jealousy, and in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Hermia says to her childhood friend Helena, "And will you rent our ancient love asunder,/to join with men in scorning your poor friend?/It is not friendly, 'tis not maidenly./Our sex as well as I may chide you for it,/Though I alone do feel the injury."

Despite the propaganda of sisterhood put forward by feminists, there is, buried deep inside all of us, repressed and struggled against, a kind of competitiveness that can lead to betrayal. Part of why we despise Linda Tripp, why we regard her as such a demon, is not because she is so freakish, such an anomaly, but because she is so close. We have almost all experienced intimacy and betrayal, we have almost all felt the peculiar pain of a friendship gone wrong, and that is why we hate the mousy blond former White House official so passionately. Our offices, classrooms, movie theaters, restaurants, banks, bars, bedrooms, parks, hospitals, art galleries and museums are filled with Linda Tripps.

Katie Roiphe

Katie Roiphe is the author of "Last Night in Paradise: Sex and Morals at the Century's End" and "The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism on Campus."

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